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How FX Chief John Landgraf Built One of TV’s Hottest Brands

Theme parks aren’t exactly John Landgraf’s idea of a good time. But the FX chief was in Orlando in January for the Walt Disney Television sales conference when he got a call from Disney CEO Bob Iger, asking if he wanted to visit the new “Avatar”-themed attraction at Animal Kingdom.

At 7:30 a.m., a Disney ambassador in a checkered vest picked up Landgraf and FX chief operating officer Chuck Saftler at their hotel and drove them to the front gate of the park, where they were greeted by a Disney World official and escorted inside. With no other guests on site, the FX execs rode the Na’vi River Journey, a sort of 22nd-century Jungle Cruise through the fictional realm of James Cameron’s epic sci-fi feature; and Avatar Flight of Passage, a thrill ride in which visitors soar atop one of the film’s flying “mountain banshees” in an augmented-reality environment.

Landgraf liked it.

“If you’re a 57-year-old television executive who’s been working in this business for 30 years, I’d say burnout cynicism is an occupational hazard,” he says. “But that stuff’s pretty inspiring, I’ve got to say. I was genuinely moved by the quality control, by the attention to detail, by the deep level of commitment and caring.”

Saftler was also impressed. Walking through the park on a humid Central Florida morning, he took note of the work by those tasked with turning Cameron’s vision into a three-dimensional space. He also took note of the effect it had on Landgraf.

“John, I wouldn’t call him an amusement park kind of guy,” Saftler says. “But what I would say is that John’s incredibly creative and an innovator. The best part of an amusement park is storytelling. John was able to see how technology was utilized, how creativity was utilized, how storytelling was utilized to take you out of your reality and put you into this reality. He was like, ‘The Walt Disney Co. is where we want to be.’”

That’s good, because Disney is where Landgraf and FX — an exec and a company entwined for 15 years — are now housed. When Disney’s $71 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox was finalized in March, the Burbank entertainment giant inherited a trove of brands and intellectual property with which it hopes to propel ambitions for a growing direct-to-consumer home entertainment business. Among the prize jewels in that cache is FX.

Landgraf came aboard FX at a time when the cable business was booming. The biggest channels, like FX, USA and TNT, were starting to dive into original programming, advertising was growing and the cable bundle that is shaky now was the envy of the rest of the TV industry. Though making money off a cable channel was cheap and easy — lean into low-cost syndicated and unscripted content, collect affiliate fees, rinse, repeat — FX developed signature shows that pushed creative boundaries for ad-supported TV.

Landgraf is quick to point out that the brand’s original creative polestars, Shawn Ryan’s “The Shield” and Ryan Murphy’s “Nip/Tuck,” were already in place when he joined FX as programming chief. As chairman of FX Networks and FX Prods., the exec amped up the production of originals with hits such as “American Horror Story,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Fargo,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Atlanta” and “The Americans.”

A new crop of shows including “Better Things,” “Pose” and “Fosse/Verdon” is expected to rake in Emmy nominations next month.

“John has made FX a destination for great creative programming,” says WME television head Rick Rosen. “He’s really transformed FX from a basic-cable company to a premium-content company on basic cable.”

Iger has indicated that of all the Fox brands Disney has acquired, FX is one of the likeliest to benefit from increased resources. In turn, the network is expected to grow its volume of shows while maintaining quality.

“Big distribution is a much more viable pathway for us than trying to scale up a single branded service.”
John Landgraf

That increase is not meant to merely program a cable channel. It’s an investment in a streaming future.

In April, Disney revealed how its upcoming family-oriented direct-to-consumer app, Disney Plus, will weaponize brands such as Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm and National Geographic for the streaming wars to come. A month later, Disney cut deals with WarnerMedia and Comcast to gain control of Hulu, which it will position as an adult-oriented counterpart to Disney Plus. The two apps, along with sports-oriented ESPN Plus, represent Disney’s all-in gambit to maintain media supremacy in a post-cable world.

FX’s programming is expected to play an important part in Hulu’s growth. For now, Landgraf claims, details about whatever symbiosis the two brands may eventually enjoy are nonexistent. But change is coming, and he is embracing it. The exec has long envied the commercial-free models of premium services such as HBO. Two years ago, he oversaw the launch of FX Plus, an attempt to deliver an ad-free option. But he admits that such an effort, limited by cable carriage agreements to existing pay-TV subscribers, is “a rugged path” for a brand that boasts only a dozen or so current programs at any time.

“Having worked closely with John for the past eight years, it’s hard to distill him down to one or two attributes that stand out because he has so many strengths,” says Walt Disney Television chairman Peter Rice. “There are not many executives who are exceptional at developing content and running a business, and John excels at both. He is smart, principled, analytical, strategic and always measured, so he has my complete trust. His attention to detail and care of our talent, as well as his FX colleagues, make him a truly gifted leader.”

In four interviews conducted in May and June, Landgraf spoke at length with Variety about his tenure at FX and the company’s future in the Disney universe. At the core of those conversations is Landgraf’s creative philosophy, which emphasizes serving the writer’s vision without necessarily being deferential.

“Why did Walt Disney create Mickey Mouse and Pluto?” Landgraf asks. “Why did David Chase create Carmelo and Tony Soprano? Why did Shawn Ryan create Vic Mackey and the Strike Team? I don’t know. But I know that they did, that those things simply didn’t exist. They were brought into existence through a person or people for whom that character and those ideas were calling to them. It’s a very, very intimate, human thing. Our job is trying to figure out how to help that happen.”

Landgraf’s path hasn’t been without obstacles. He and FX severed ties with Louis C.K. in 2017 in response to sexual-misconduct allegations against the comedian. Last year, the network suffered a significant blow when Murphy, its signature producer, signed an exclusive deal with rival Netflix.

A 2015 Variety report analyzing data from the Directors Guild of America found that FX lagged far behind competitors such as Netflix, HBO, AMC and the broadcast networks when it came to employing women and people of color behind the camera. At the time, Landgraf told Variety, “We need to hire more diverse and female directors.” The exec initiated an aggressive plan to make good on his promise.

FX’s latest hit, “Fosse/Verdon,” starring Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell, is generating a whole lot of Emmy buzz.
Courtesy of FX

A year later, Landgraf told reporters at the TCA press tour that 51% of the directors hired on FX shows since the Variety story was published were women or people of color. Last year, according to updated DGA statistics, 53% of FX episodes were directed by women or minorities.

“That was step one in a process without end,” Landgraf says of the directors’ initiative, adding that FX is “trying to bring genuine opportunity and genuine diversity to a business and to a brand, but also to an industry that really has put Band-Aids on [its inclusion problem] but has lacked a kind of substantive, permanent solution.”

FX boasts improved representation among actors and writers on its shows. But it still lags in other areas in terms of inclusion. “Better Things” creator and star Pamela Adlon, for instance, is the only female creator with a show on the network. Landgraf expects that to change soon: FX Prods. has deals with Melina Matsoukas, Michelle Ashford, Amy Seimetz, Stefani Robinson and Nina Jacobson, among others.

Nevertheless, Landgraf’s painstaking approach has led to a brand with great potential value to its new owner. Disney’s most important acquisitions under Iger have addressed gaps in its portfolio that the company could not fill itself. Pixar revitalized the moribund animation business that was once Disney’s keystone. Marvel and Lucasfilm brought in an audience of boys and young men. FX, for its part, is something that Disney has never had — a place for prestigious, award-worthy, adult-oriented content that moves the cultural needle, as well as a magnet for talent.

“I think that everyone in the world would want to quit their job and work alongside John Landgraf,” says Adlon.

The question the exec now faces is whether the process he created for doing his job at FX can work in the wonderful world of Disney.

When Landgraf was young, his parents worked for a Baptist evangelist named Mel Dibble. His father holds a master’s in divinity and a PhD in marriage and family counseling. His mother’s graduate degree is in social work. He had an itinerant childhood, with stops in Southern California; Scottsdale, Ariz.; New Jersey; and Oakland. His parents, who divorced when he was 11, exposed him early to media and culture. An only child, he recalls going with his father to see “Z,” “Wait Until Dark” and “The French Connection” in theaters “probably long before I should have.” In New Jersey, his mother would take him into New York, and they waited in line together in Times Square for half-price theater tickets. Young Landgraf sang in a barbershop quartet and learned to play jazz flute.

John Landgraf Showman of the Year
CREDIT: Jill Greenberg for Variety

“I was alone a lot and immersed in media of all types throughout my childhood,” he says. “I guess I’m kind of a classic nerd.” In college at Pitzer, where he majored in anthropology, he completed five years’ worth of courses in four years. “I took more classes than I needed to because I was interested in taking more classes than I needed to.”

After he graduated, he participated in the Coro Fellowship, which places prospective public servants in a series of internships. Landgraf worked for the Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power, the city of Beverly Hills, the California Assn. of Realtors and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; he spent two weeks riding with the U.S. Border Patrol in Calexico.

The last Coro internship was with an L.A. firm that did video production for advertising agencies. It was his toehold in the media business. But, he jokes, “I probably missed my calling as a college librarian.”

His first entertainment job was for producer David Manson’s Sarabande Prods., working in development and post-production. From there Landgraf went to NBC, where he served as a programming executive under Warren Littlefield in the Must See TV era (and met his wife, actress Ally Walker). His last pre-FX post was heading Danny DeVito’s Jersey Television.

“As a producer, a lot of the experience I had working with networks at that point was that they had been a little too hard on the creator,” Landgraf says. “I don’t think they meant to. But the system they were representing wasn’t built to stop the gears and say, ‘OK, let’s go back to first principles, and let’s sit and talk about why are we here.”

Landgraf joined FX as head of programming under Peter Liguori in 2004. A year later, when Liguori was tapped as entertainment chairman for Fox Broadcasting, Landgraf was made FX’s top executive.

“Peter always used the expression, ‘If I ever get run over by a bus …’” says FX Entertainment president Eric Schrier, a junior exec with the network at the time. “After he hired John, it became, ‘If I ever get run over by a bus, this guy’s going to run this network.’ And he’s done it beautifully.”

FX’s hallmark has been not just quality but consistency. The network has won more TCA Awards in the past five years than any of its competitors and has, by its own count, topped more critics’ annual best-of lists. But more impressive might be how seldom it whiffs. Since Landgraf’s arrival, FX has made only four drama pilots that were not ordered to series. When, in 2010, FX canceled Ted Griffin’s “Terriers” after just one season, the move was so off-brand that Landgraf held a teleconference with reporters to explain his decision.

Over the years, Landgraf has developed a reputation as a thoughtful, even cerebral TV executive. Svelte and serene, he becomes almost animated (almost) in one conversation when, after spending 45 minutes answering two questions, he goes to his desk to retrieve a stack of charts quantifying critical and audience acclaim for FX programs. He is an unabashed data wonk. His question-and-answer sessions at the Television Critics Assn. press tour have become — for a particular subset of journalists and industry nerds — a biannual, chock-full-of-numbers highlight in which the conversation shifts easily from Donald Glover’s aborted attempt at a “Deadpool” animated series to macroeconomic trends to railroad deregulation during the Jimmy Carter presidency. It was at one such session that Landgraf coined the expression “Peak TV” and first showed off FX Research’s now widely circulated annual chart tracking the number of original scripted shows on television.

Landgraf often confronts problems through writing, fashioning essays that are shared with his inner circle and on occasion converted into the public speeches that media leaders are frequently asked to give. He’s currently working on one piece about “the difference between what we would broadly call premium television and what we would broadly call broadcast television,” and another about the abdication of antitrust regulation by the United States.

“John has transformed FX from a basic cable company to a premium-content company on basic cable.”
Rick Rosen, WME

“I don’t think that I have the talent or the craft of the best writers that work in television or the best work by writers that work at FX,” he says. “But I think I have many of the same habits of mind and many of the same basic impulses as those writers.”

Joel Fields recalls that for Season 5, Episode 2, of “The Americans,” he and co-creator Joe Weisberg kept receiving script notes telling them that the narrative for Holly Taylor’s teen character Paige wasn’t landing. Finally, the showrunners found themselves on the phone with Landgraf, who asked them what their intent for her was. “We explained it to him, and he said, ‘I get what you’re saying cognitively, and it’s all there cognitively. I’m not experiencing it emotionally.’ And the minute he said that, Joe and I looked at each other and without talking to each other, we could see the scene.” Within five minutes of ending the call, the showrunners had sketched out a critical moment in which Paige’s parents, Keri Russell’s Elizabeth and Matthew Rhys’ Philip, find her asleep in her own closet.

“Fargo” and “Legion” creator Noah Hawley says Landgraf begins every creative conversation the same way.

“The first thing that he does is say back to you what it is he heard from you and what he feels the major themes or characters or ideas are in that piece, which proves to you that he’s paying attention, that he’s thinking deeply about it and that he’s engaging with the material,” Hawley explains.

FX’s writer-driven approach has led to meaningful relationships with some of television’s biggest creators. But those relationships have on occasion taken unexpected, even dark, turns.

Murphy’s Netflix move — leaving behind his longtime deal at 20th Century Fox Television last year for a nine-figure offer from the streaming service — presents an obvious challenge.

“Without question, he’s been our most prolific producer, both in terms of the number of shows he’s made and the number of awards, nominations and wins he’s brought to the network,” Landgraf says. When Murphy — exec producer of “American Horror Story,” “American Crime Story,” “Pose” and “Feud” — took the Netflix deal, he visited Landgraf’s office, where they cried together.

“We approach things very differently,” Murphy says. “We realized early on that we should take the best of what I have and the best of what he has and put them into some matrix. We’ve always come from a place of collaboration. John demands that, which I think is what’s so fascinating about him.”

Murphy says that he remains “very passionate” about “Pose” and that he would like “Horror Story” to continue for as long as FX wants it. He notes that four new seasons of “Crime Story” are in development, and that he expects one of those (he’s not sure which) to start shooting this year.

But how long Murphy’s FX shows continue will depend on his desire to keep working on them. And there are no new ones where those came from. Asked about the future of “Feud,” Murphy says, “Who knows? I can only do so much, and I have so many new shows happening at Netflix.”

“Pose,” with Indya Moore, was co-created by Ryan Murphy, who last year signed a deal with Netflix. Murphy says he intends to stay involved with the show.
Courtesy of FX

Murphy ankled just months after FX parted ways with another of its signature talents, Louis C.K. When The New York Times, in 2017, published detailed sexual-misconduct allegations against the comedian, FX moved quickly to sever ties. C.K. was not only star and creator of “Louie,” but also executive producer on three other shows. Landgraf says it was C.K.’s suggestion to end his involvement in those programs — “Better Things” and “Baskets” for the FX Networks, and FX-produced “One Mississippi” for Amazon.

But rumors about C.K.’s behavior had circulated for years prior to the Times story. Five months earlier, C.K. himself addressed Gawker’s 2015 report on his alleged misconduct, telling New York magazine, “I don’t care about that.”

Landgraf never spoke to C.K. about the allegations prior to the Times story. “I wasn’t even aware of it,” he says.

Landgraf strongly believes that FX’s future growth will be greatly bolstered by coming under Disney’s large umbrella and being able to capitalize on its unmatched global reach.

“The ability to support what Disney is working to do in terms of building large aggregators that can get to very substantial audiences — big distribution is really exciting and is a much more viable pathway for us than trying to scale up a single branded service,” Landgraf says. Hulu would potentially provide FX content with a distribution platform that boasts a significant footprint. “Hulu already has 29 million subscribers.”

He also points to Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm as examples of creative companies acquired by Disney whose cultures were preserved rather than treated as conquered territories. He expects the same for FX. Landgraf has grown fond of noting that Disney is the rare media conglomerate founded by an artist.

Considering that said artist built an empire on a cartoon mouse and a bunch of kids’ movies and some theme parks, it is, on its surface, a strange home for FX. (It was Murphy, a year and a half ago at press tour, who wondered aloud, “Am I going to have to put Mickey Mouse in ‘American Horror Story’?”)

But when Landgraf looks out on the Magic Kingdom, he sees something surprising — home.

“What’s been really fascinating to me, and to be honest, what I didn’t expect, is how much common ground, how much overlap, there would be culturally between this little company that we built here called FX and that giant company over there called Disney,” he says. “But I have found it remarkable, actually, and very comfortable.”

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